Huskers' Armstrong, mates open spring with eye on 2016 prize
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) Not long after the season, Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. called a meeting with the offensive players who'll be seniors in 2016 and reminded them they have one more chance to capture a title.
Though the program hasn't won a conference since 1999, no group of seniors has missed playing in at least one league championship game since 2005.
None of the rising seniors on offense played in the 2012 Big Ten championship game because all of them were redshirts or still in high school. Since then, the Cornhuskers have had Big Ten division finishes of second, second and fourth.
''This is our last year. We just want to have the right mindset going into this offseason that we can't let anything slide,'' Armstrong said, recalling his message to teammates.
The Cornhuskers believe they passed the first test. By all accounts, the competition in the weight room and in conditioning drills ramped up over the winter.
Phase 2 began Saturday with the start of spring practice. The team worked out for two hours in shorts and helmets, with the only notable development being rising sophomore Zack Darlington's move from quarterback to slot receiver.
Darlington was a heralded prospect before his senior season at Apopka (Florida) High ended after one game because of a concussion. He sat out 2014 as a redshirt and did not take a snap last season. Coach Mike Riley said Darlington changed positions for a better opportunity to get on the field.
The Huskers are coming off a 6-7 campaign in Riley's first season. They won three of their last four after a 3-6 start.
''Last year was just a reality check for us,'' Armstrong said. ''We can't take plays off. We have to be smart with the ball. When we're smart with the ball, we're capable of winning games. This offseason we're focusing on limiting mistakes and knowing exactly what we're doing.''
Turnovers were the difference between a losing and winning season. Armstrong threw a Big Ten-high 16 interceptions, four in an eight-point home loss to Iowa, and the Huskers were second-to-last in turnover margin. They had five losses by five points or fewer.
They played one of their cleanest games in the Foster Farms Bowl, with Armstrong losing a fumble but throwing no interceptions in a 37-29 win over UCLA. Armstrong was named the game's most valuable player.
Heading into his fourth season as the starter, Armstrong is looking to make a big jump in the second year under Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf.
''It's not about getting to know each other now. It's more about focusing on the small things. That's what they're trying to drive into our brains,'' Armstrong said. ''If you're not studying, then you're getting left behind. It shows up when you've got a bunch of guys who know what they're doing, and then you go out there and haven't studied a lick of your playbook and you're making the same mistakes.''
Receiver Jordan Westerkamp, Armstrong's roommate, said the bowl performance reinvigorated Armstrong and the rest of the seniors.
''It's crazy that it's our last year for us,'' Westerkamp said, ''but we know how important this year is and we want to be able to leave our mark better than the one that's been left here the past couple years.''